Diane Gilliam is the author of chapbook Recipe for Blackberry Cake, 1999; and full length books One of Everything, 2003; Kettle Bottom, 2004, winner of the Perugia Press Prize; and Dreadful Wind & Rain, 2017. She is A Room of Her Own Foundation 6th Gift of Freedom Award winner, 2013. AROHO gives this award biennially to a female poet, fiction writer, or creative nonfiction writer to complete a project for publication over a two-year period. She also received, in 2008, the Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing.
I first met Diane about ten years ago at the Appalachian Writers' Workshop, Hindman Settlement School, Kentucky. We roomed together there once and have been friends since. I received an advance copy of Diane’s Dreadful Wind & Rain, expected from Red Hen Press in 2017. Diane is a small unassuming woman, but when she speaks through her poetry, usually in persona, she packs a wallop. You just don’t see it coming.
The poems in Dreadful Wind & Rain are divided into 4 sections: “Girl” is about early lives and losing one’s hands (as in The Tale of the Handless Maiden); “Anyone” is about other lives and this particular one, coming of age/struggle; “Or Else” includes poems of claiming, taking hands back, and moving toward wholeness and connection; and “After”, the shortest section with only four poems, leads us into acceptance of not happily ever after but the threshold between a life that’s behind and the life that’s ahead. It is both a sad and hopeful tale told with simple and stunning language. The collection includes one villanelle (“His & Hers”); six prose poems (two in each of first four sections); one “Where I’m From” borrowed from George Ella Lyon; and the remaining 45 are free verse.
In the opening poem “Girl” a young child is looking out a window wanting “Whatever is she is wanting” which “is not/too much to ask”. It ends with these lines which pulled this reader in:
…. And if I still can’t say
what it is I am wanting, look closely at the windowpane,it’s what I brought you here to see—how it holds usin that house apart from what we want,how the glass makes it looklike there is nothingto stop usat all.
And so Diane starts us on a journey which looks like “there is nothing / to stop us / at all” and travels through female (and male) time, fairy tale time, Biblical time, and story book time. Her poems speak from different personas and cover stories women often tell and don’t tell, which are key to how we are who we are, how we diminish ourselves, and how that can change over time. She brings us to the first window in the first poem, then takes us on a journey that allows for all our versions to step into consciousness. The second poem, in its entirety, reads:
Someone put my mother in a box.This is an old story.The box could have been goldor glass or ice. It was a cedar chestweighted with blankets and quiltsfor a family of ten. He took them outand put her in, she was three maybe four.He told her not to move, pressed the quiltsand blankets down on her faceand the box clicked shut.This was after. This is the storyof the sins of the brother, hand-me-downversion of the sins of the father.They searched first the yard insidethe fence, then the wood. They wentup the mountain, into the old bear caveback of the house. They called, they shouted.They tore their hair.He’d told her not to move.Every tale has its local inflections.Hers could have ended with kindly strangers,a woodsman and his wife longingfor a child of their own. Instead, it wasa whipping for the hiding and the scare.This is a long story.The brother long since dead,the box, of course, still alive, dark heirloomcrouched in the corners of all our rooms.We walk by, something clicksand whispers,Don’t move.
Very telling. “Someone put my mother in a box.//This is an old story”. The box could have been anything—it’s something most of us can relate to for this is how we are trapped in the stories passed down. Themes of separation, isolation, deceit, and “heirlooms” passed down reoccur throughout the book. I could spend more time here but I won’t. There are things you should discover for yourself.
Diane uses turns of phrases in unusual ways, especially in the first two sections. The poem “For Goodness Sake” uses versions of common phrases: paid the price, swept under the rug, a straw to break the camel’s back, mad money, turn the other cheek, and cry like a baby. In Diane’s hands, the phrases do not come across as trite but rather as familiar and intimate. In the last stanza these phrases tumble into: “we understood—it was ordinary / hunger, we were hungry, like everyone else. / And that, at last, was good.”
I want to highlight the phrase “turn it into nothing” which is echoed from the first poem: “And you were nothing, the mother / will say. And I was nothing, / the girl will say.” “[T]urn it into nothing” threads into this, the third poem, “The Father’s Story”:
Back then, people knew how to makesomething out of nothing. If there wasn’t grass,women’d go out with a broom and sweepa pattern, like fan quilting, in their dirt.….
The narrator explains how he came to live with his aunt and uncle who “didn’t have any kids to work their farm / and they were, hands down, [another turn of phrase] / the meanest people that ever lived.”
Once I found some old rusty wheels in the barn.I thought to build a wheelbarrowto carry the stove wood up to the porchfrom the field. Uncle Jim pitched a fit,called me a thieving son-of-a-bitchon account of those wheels. Man, oh, man.They knew how to take something, too,and turn it into nothing.
In “The Bargain,” another child, or perhaps the same girl at an earlier age, is asked to be nothing, as had the girl was in the first poem. The phrase “with next to nothing” is later used in “The Knot” where “The prize, / of course, is marriage.” In the third section of this poem, “Decades later, on her way out the door, / she still is looking for the why of it all”.
I have selected of Diane Gilliam’s Dreadful Wind & Rain those poems which I found satisfying. To merely touch on poems which awed me, I tempt you with this one, previously published in Massachusetts Review:She insists on an answer.All he can say is this—he doesn’t know why,but he thinks he loves herwhen he sees her working for hourson something all laid out on the floor,down on her hands and knees,with next to nothingof something impossible,trying to make it workand willing for anything.
PSALM OF LEAHLeah….Rachel. The names mean “cow” and “ewe” respectively.--Zondervan NIV Study BibleYou Who Hear Me,though my name is only the soundof the low groan in the field, the ripof grass from the ground, the obscenewail of the onecut off from the herd; YouWho See the winceof the small humiliation of milking,the twisted grimace of husbandry,the face beaten like a plowshareinto the shape of what happens to it;I knowYou are not the stone eyes of my father’ssmall gods, You are nothingRachel can steal. You are not the stones Jacobheaps as altars over top his sinsto mark his trail. You are not the stonefrom the mountain broken, You are the mountainbroken, its face undone, the space left openwhen the men with the hammers have gone.
Diane shows us how we inherit stories, how we become trapped in stories, but she eventually shows us we can learn to see in different ways and change our own narratives. And she takes us to a door in the last poem, where we find
the breadcrumbsmeant to lead you outof this enchantment, your own,whatever it is.The door openswhen you touch it. It is not wrongto pause on the threshold, here at the veryend of the story. Behind you, everything ever.
Before you, on the dark road,everything after.
“Before you” is not happily ever after. Let’s be real—life is never going to be easy. But this book shows us we can claim our own story.
I am one of those people who love to read the books I love over and over. It is a comfort thing. And with each subsequent reading, I find more depth in Diane Gilliam’s Dreadful Wind & Rain. Watch for it.
--Melva Sue Priddy
--Melva Sue Priddy